Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Glimpses of Church and Social Life in the Highlands in Olden Times and Other Papers
Chapter III. Testimonies as to the authenticity of Ossian’s poems

IN these days of advanced criticism, a renewed and vigorous attack upon the poems of Ossian was of course to be expected. As an example, the remarkable declaration recently hazarded by a learned philologist in our Highland capital may be quoted, “that Macpherson is as truly the author of ‘ Ossian ’ as Milton is of ‘ Paradise Lost.’ ” 1 But the people of Badenoch, where Macpherson lived and died, have hitherto imbibed, as with their mother’s milk, the belief that “Fingal lived and that Ossian sang,” and that Macpherson was simply a somewhat free translator. We have verdicts in abundance confirming that belief, not only from many of the most famous men of “ light and leading” of bygone times, but also from the most distinguished Celtic scholars of our own time, two of whom have gone over to the majority only within the last few years. One of these was the accomplished and venerated Dr Clerk of Kilmallie, whose able ‘ Dissertation,’ published in 1870, at the instance of the Marquis of Bute, contains an admirable summary of the whole Ossianic question. The other was Dr Mac-Lauchlan of Edinburgh, one of the leading Gaelic scholars of last generation, and acknowledged as practically arbiter in matters of Gaelic literature and scholarship.

“The fact is,” says Dr MacLauchlan, “that while Macpherson found several ancient MSS. containing pieces of Ossianic poetry, the poems never existed to any great extent save among the oral recitations of the people. They were floating fragments, as were probably the poems of Homer, for many long years before they were committed to writing. Tradition is quite capable of preserving such fragmentary compositions. Last year (1856) one thousand lines of different pieces of Ossianic poetry were taken down from the lips of an old woman (a Janet Sutherland) in Caithness by Mr James Cumming, a student in the New College of Edinburgh. The writer has a copy of these in his possession; and nothing is more remarkable than their coincidence with the fragments in the Dean of Lis-more’s MS., taken down 330 years before. It affords a complete reply to all the objections urged against the poetry of Ossian, founded on the impossibility of such compositions being handed down for any length of time by mere tradition. In the absence of writing, it is hard to say what the human memory is capable of accomplishing. It has no doubt its limits; but we are in modern times without data from which to conclude definitely how far these limits may extend, and this without detriment to what has been said regarding ‘Fingal.’ After all this, however, Macpherson was undoubtedly more than the mere editor of these poems. He exercised an amount of discretion which perhaps served to lay him open to the charges to which he became afterwards exposed, and which rendered it difficult for his friends to defend either Ossian or himself. He pieced together the floating fragments which he gathered throughout the Highlands—interspersed them to some extent with his own compositions—changed names, when that suited his purpose, and expunged portions that were inconsistent with his favourite theories. He took liberties, which, however, other editors have taken to at least as large an extent, without being loaded with the obloquy which was heaped on Macpherson ; for it is true that, notwithstanding all Macpherson did as an editor, we have in these poems numerous and extensive remains of genuine Ossianic poetry; and certainly the spirit of the whole is that of Ossian, and not of Macpherson. The whole works are of the true type of the ancient heroic poetry of the Scottish Highlands.”

Here is Dr MacLauchlan’s final testimony, as given by him eighteen years later:—

“From all that has been written on the subject of these ancient Gaelic poems of Ossian, it is perfectly clear that Ossian himself is no creation of James Macpherson. His name has been familiar to the people both of the Highlands and Ireland for a thousand years and more. Oisian an deigh na Feinn (‘ Ossian after the Fingalians ’) has been a proverbial saying among them for numberless generations. Nor did Macpherson invent Ossian’s poems. There were poems reputed to be Ossian’s in the Highlands for centuries before he was born, and poems, too, which for poetic power and interest are unsurpassed, which speak home to the heart of every man who can sympathise with popular poetry marked by the richest felicities of diction, and which entitles them justly to all the commendations bestowed upon the poems edited by Macpherson.”

The late Alexander Smith—himself no mean poet—speaks eloquently to the same effect.

“Wandering,” he says, “up and down the Western Islands, one is brought into contact with Ossian, and is launched into a sea of perplexities as to the genuineness of Macpherson’s translation. That fine poems should have been composed in the Highlands so many centuries ago, and that these should have existed through that immense period of time in the memories and on the tongues of the common people, is sufficiently startling. The Border Ballads are children in their bloom compared with the hoary Ossianic legends and songs. On the other hand, the theory that Macpherson, whose literary efforts, when he did not pretend to translate, are extremely poor and meagre, should have, by sheer force of imagination, created poems confessedly full of fine things, with strong local colouring, not without a weird sense of remoteness, with heroes shadowy as if seen through Celtic mists; poems, too, which have been received by his countrymen as genuine, which Dr Johnson scornfully abused, and which Dr Blair enthusiastically praised, which have been translated into every language in Europe; which Goethe and Napoleon admired; from which Carlyle has drawn his ‘ red son of the furnace,’ and many a memorable sentence besides; and over which, for more than a hundred years now, there has raged a critical and philological battle, with victory inclining to neither side,—that Macpherson should have created these poems is, if possible, more startling than their claim of antiquity. If Macpherson created Ossian, he was an athlete who made one surprising leap, and was palsied ever afterwards; a marksman who made a centre at his first shot, and who never afterwards could hit the target. It is well enough known that the Highlanders, like all half-civilised nations, had their legends and their minstrelsy; that they were fond of reciting poems and runes ; and that the person who retained on his memory the greatest number of tales and songs brightened the gatherings round the ancient peat-fires, as your Sydney Smith brightens the modern dinner. And it is astonishing how much legendary material a single memory may retain. In illustration, Dr Brown, in his ‘History of the Highlands,’ informs us that ‘the late Captain John Macdonald of Breakish, a native of the Island of Skye, declared upon oath, at the age of seventy-eight, that he could repeat, when a boy between twelve and fifteen years of age (about the year 1740), from one to two hundred Gaelic poems, differing in length and in number of verses; and that he learned them from an old man about eighty years of age, who sang them for years to his father when he went to bed at night, and in the spring and winter before he rose in the morning.’ The late Dr Stuart, minister of Luss, knew ‘ an old Highlander in the Isle of Skye, who repeated to him for three successive days, and during several hours each day, without hesitation, and with the utmost rapidity, many thousand lines of ancient poetry, and would have continued his repetition much longer if the Doctor had required him to do so.’ From such a raging torrent of song the Doctor doubtless fled for his life. Without a doubt there was a vast quantity of poetic material existing in the islands. But more than this. When Macpherson, at the request of Home, Blair, and others, went to the Highlands to collect materials, he undoubtedly received Gaelic MSS. Mr Farquharson (Dr Brown tells us), Prefect of Studies at Douay College in France, was the possessor of Gaelic MSS., and in 1766 he received a copy of Macpherson’s ‘Ossian,’ and Mr M‘Gillivray, a student there at the time, saw them (Macpherson’s ‘Ossian’ and Mr Farquharson’s MSS.) frequently collated, and heard the complaint that the translations fell very far short of the energy and beauty of the originals; and the said Mr M‘Gillivray was convinced that the MSS. contained all the poems translated by Macpherson, because he recollected very distinctly having heard Mr Farquharson say, after having read the translations, ‘that he had all these poems in his collection.’ Dr Johnson could never talk of the matter calmly. ‘Show me the original manuscripts,’ he would roar. ‘Let Mr Macpherson deposit the manuscript in one of the colleges at Aberdeen where there are people who can judge and if the professors certify the authenticity, then there will be an end of the controversy.’ Macpherson, when his truthfulness was rudely called in question, wrapped himself up in proud silence, and disdained reply. At last, however, he submitted to the test which Dr Johnson proposed. At a bookseller’s shop he left for some months the originals of his translations, intimating by public advertisement that he had done so, and stating that all persons interested in the matter might call and examine them. No one, however, called; Macpherson’s pride was hurt, and he became thereafter more obstinately silent and uncommunicative than ever. There needed no such mighty pother about the production of manuscripts. It might have been seen at a glance that the Ossianic poems were not forgeries—at all events, that Macpherson did not forge them. Even in the English translation, to a great extent, the sentiments, the habits, the modes of thought described, are entirely primeval; in reading it, we seem to breathe the morning air of the world. The personal existence of Ossian is, I suppose, as doubtful as the personal existence of Homer; and if he ever lived, he is great, like Homer, through his tributaries. Ossian drew into himself every lyrical runnel, he augmented himself in every way, he drained centuries of their song; and living an oral and gipsy life, handed down from generation to generation without being committed to writing, and having their outlines determinately fixed, the authorship of these songs becomes vested in a multitude, every reciter having more or less to do with it. For centuries the floating legendary material was reshaped, added to, and altered by the changing spirit and emotion of the Celt. Reading the Ossianic fragments is like visiting the skeleton of one of the South American cities ; like walking through the streets of disinterred Pompeii or Herculaneum. These poems, if rude and formless, are touching and venerable as some ruin on the waste, the names of whose builders are unknown whose towers and walls, although not erected in accordance with the lights of modern architecture, affect the spirit and fire the imagination far more than nobler and more recent piles; its chambers, now roofless to the day, were ages ago tenanted by life and death, joy and sorrow; its walls have been worn and rounded by time, its stones channeled and fretted by the fierce tears of winter rains; on broken arch and battlement every April for centuries has kindled a light of desert flowers; and it stands muffled with ivies, bearded with mosses, and stained with lichens by the suns of forgotten summers. So these songs are in the original—strong, simple, picturesque in decay; in Mr Macpherson’s English they are hybrids and mongrels. They resemble the Castle of Dunvegan, an amorphous mass of masonry of every conceivable style of architecture, in which the ninth century jostles the nineteenth.

“In these poems not only do character and habit smack of the primeval time, but there is extraordinary truth of local colouring. The ‘Iliad’ is roofed by the liquid softness of an Ionian sky. In the verse of Chaucer there is eternal May and the smell of newly blossomed English hawthorn hedges. In Ossian, in like manner, the skies are cloudy, there is a tumult of waves on the shore, the wind sings in the pine. This truth of local colouring is a strong argument in proof of authenticity. I for one will never believe that Macpherson was more than a somewhat free translator. Despite Gibbon’s sneer, I do ‘ indulge the supposition that Ossian lived and Fingal sung; ’ and, more than this, it is my belief that these misty phantasmal Ossianic fragments, with their car-borne heroes that come and go like clouds on the wind, their frequent apparitions, the ‘stars dim-twinkling through their forms,’ their maidens fair and pale as lunar rainbows, are, in their own literary place, worthy of every recognition. If you think these poems exaggerated, go out at Sligachan, and see what wild work the pencil of moonlight makes on a mass of shifting vapour. Does that seem nature or a madman’s dream? Look at the billowy clouds rolling off the brow of Blaavin, all golden and on fire with the rising sun ! AVordsworth’s verse does not more completely mirror the Lake Country than do the poems of Ossian the terrible scenery of the Isles. Grim and fierce and dreary as the night-wind is the strain, for not with rose and nightingale had the old bard to do; but with the thistle waving on the ruin, the upright stones that mark the burying-places of heroes, weeping female faces white as sea-foam in the moon, the breeze mourning alone in the desert, the battles and friendships of his far-off youth, and the flight of the ‘dark-brown years.’ These poems are wonderful transcripts of Hebridean scenery. They are as full of mists as the Hebridean glens themselves. Ossian seeks his images in the vapoury wraiths. Take the following of two chiefs parted by their king: ‘They sink from their king on either side, like two columns of morning mist when the sun rises between them on his glittering rocks. Dark is their rolling on either side, each towards its reedy pool.’ You cannot help admiring the image; and I saw the misty circumstance this very morning when the kingly sun struck the earth with his golden spear, and the cloven mists rolled backwards to their pools like guilty things.”

In the introduction to his well-known ‘Popular Tales of the West Highlands,’ the late Mr J. F. Campbell of Islay says :—

“I believe that there were poems of very old date, of which a few fragments still exist in Scotland as pure traditions. That these related to Celtic worthies who were popular heroes before the Celts came from Ireland, and answer to Arthur and his knights elsewhere. That the same personages have figured in poems composed, or altered, or improved, or spoilt by bards who lived in Scotland, and by Irish bards of all periods; and that these personages have been mythical heroes amongst Celts from the earliest of times. That ‘the poems’ were orally collected by Macpherson, and by men before him, by Dr Smith, by the committee of the Highland Society, and by others, and that the printed Gaelic is old poetry, mended and patched, and pieced together, and altered, but on the whole a genuine work. . . . Those who would study ‘the controversy’ will find plenty of discussion ; but the report of the Highland Society appears to settle the question on evidence. I cannot do better than quote from Johnson’s ‘Poets’ the opinion of a great author, who was a great translator, who, in speaking of his own work, says: ‘What must the world think . . . after such a judgment passed by so great a critic, the world who decides so often, and who examines so seldom; the world who, even in matters of literature, is almost always the slave of authority? Who will suspect that so much learning should mistake, that so much accuracy should be misled, or that so much candour should be biassed? ... I think that no translation ought to be the ground of criticism, because no man ought to be condemned upon another man’s explanation of his meaning.’

“And to that quotation,” Mr Campbell continues, “let me add this manuscript note, which I found in a copy of the Report of the Highland Society on the poems of Ossian, which I purchased in December 1859, and which came from the library of Colonel Hamilton Smith at Plymouth: ‘The Rev. Dr Campbell, of Half-way Tree, Lisuana, in Jamaica, often repeated to me, in the year 1799, 1801, and 1802, parts of Ossian in Gaelic; and assured me that he had possessed a manuscript, long the property of his family, in which Gaelic poems, and in particular whole pieces of Ossian’s compositions, were contained. This he took out with him on his first voyage to the West Indies in 1780, when his ship was captured by a boat from the Santissima Trinidata, flagship of the whole Spanish fleet; and he, together with all the other passengers, lost nearly the whole of their baggage, among which was the volume in question. In 1814, when I was on the staff of General Sir Thomas Graham, now Lord Lyndoch, I understood that Mr Macpherson had been at one time his tutor, and therefore I asked his opinion respecting the authenticity of the Poems. His lordship replied that he never had any doubts on the subject, he having seen in Mr Macpherson’s possession several manuscripts in the Gaelic language, and heard him speak of them repeatedly; he told me some stronger particulars, which I cannot now note down, for the conversation took place during the action of our winter campaign. Charles Hamn. Smith, Lt.-Col.’

“The colonel had the reputation of being a great antiquary, and had a valuable library. James Macpherson, a ‘modest young man, who was master of Greek and Latin,’ was ‘procured’ to be a preceptor to ‘the boy Tommy,’ who was afterwards Lord Lyndoch (according to a letter in a book printed for private circulation). As it appears to me, those who are ignorant of Gaelic, and nowadays maintain that ‘Macpherson composed Ossian’s Poems,’ are like critics who, being ignorant of Greek, should maintain that Pope wrote the ‘ Odyssey,’ and was the father of Homer; or, being ignorant of English, should declare that Tennyson was the father of King Arthur and all his knights, because he has published one of many poems which treat of them. It was different when Highlanders were ‘rebels,’ and it was petty treason to deny that they were savages.

“A glance at ‘Johnson’s Tour in the Hebrides’ will show the feeling of the day. He heard Gaelic songs in plenty, but would not believe in Gaelic poems. He appreciated the kindness and hospitality with which he was treated; he praised the politeness of all ranks, and yet maintained that their language was ‘the rude speech of a barbarous people, who had few thoughts to express, and were content, as they conceived grossly, to be grossly understood.’ He could see no beauty in the mountains, which men now flock to see. He saw no fish in fording northern rivers, and explains how the winter torrents sweep them away; the stags were ‘perhaps not bigger than our fallow-deer’; the waves were not larger than those on the coast of Sussex; and yet, though the Doctor would not believe in Gaelic poems, he did believe that peat grew as it was cut, and that the vegetable part of it probably caused a glowing redness in the earth, of which it is mainly composed; and he came away willing to believe in the second-sight, though not quite convinced.”

Here is the conclusion arrived at by the late Mr John Campbell Shairp—the distinguished Principal of the University of St Andrews, and Professor of Poetry in the University of Oxford—after a prolonged study of the question :—

“The longer I have studied the question, the more I have been convinced that Macpherson was a translator, not an author; that he found and did not create his materials; that all the more important part of his Ossian is ancient, and had long existed in the Highlands ; and that at the time he undertook his collection the Highlands were a quarry, out of which many more Ossianic blocks and fragments might have been dug.”

Macpherson never professed to be more than a translator, and it is no disparagement to his literary fame to state, as Professor Blackie does—quoting from the evidence of one of the ablest Celtic scholars of Macpherson’s time—that “according no less to the express testimony of competent persons than to the ex facie probabilities of the case, he could no more have written a poem like one of Ossian’s than he could have composed the Prophecies of Isaiah or created the Isle of Skye! ” Let us listen also to the testimony of such a fair and unprejudiced critic as the accomplished authoress of the ‘Letters from the Mountains,’ whose good sense and judgment have been universally admitted. Mrs Grant speaks of the translator from personal knowledge; she was a near neighbour of, and on intimate terms with, Lachlan Macpherson of Strathmashie, who accompanied the translator on his tour throughout the Highlands collecting the Ossianic fragments, and assisted him so much in his translations ; she was fully conversant with all the circumstances under which these translations were published to the world ; and here is what one so well qualified to judge says in a letter written to one of her daughters on 4th August 1805, nine years after the translator’s death :—

“I forgive the Reviewers like a Christian for what they say of myself, but feel as revengeful as a Malay for what they say of the Highlanders; for their silly and absurd attempt to prove the fair-haired Fingal and his tuneful son nonentities, includes an accusation of deceit and folly against the whole people. Arrogant scribes that they are, to talk so decidedly of the question, of all others, perhaps, which they are least qualified to determine! They are doubtless clever, but intoxicated with applause and self-opinion. Why should they wish to diminish the honour their country derives from the most exalted heroism, adorned by the most affecting poetry that ever existed? They disprove their own assertion; for had Ossian’s poetry been the shadow of a shade, a mere imaginary imitation of what, if it ever did exist, had been long lost in the clouds of remote antiquity, it would be utterly impossible that it should communicate to all Europe the powerful impulse they are forced to acknowledge. An author describing a fictitious character may make us weep and tremble, but then he is impressed by some real one with the image he conveys to us. The double deception of a feigned poet celebrating a feigned hero could never have power to reach the heart. Chatterton, the tattered theme of all these sceptics with whom they are sure to begin and end, had powers of mind far superior to those of James Macpherson; and what emotion except that of wonder was ever produced by his poetry? Whoever agitates, exalts, or deeply affects the mind, must first feel himself. Now no man was ever an enthusiast in the very act of knavery. Do the Reviewers know so little of human nature as to suppose a man’s mind to expand with generous and tender sentiments at the very instant he is shrinking with the consciousness of deliberate baseness?”

Here are a few of the testimonies obtained by the Highland Society, who investigated the whole subject:—

1. Sir John Macpherson, Lauriston, February 4, 1760:—

“I do myself the pleasure of presenting you with a few specimens of Ossian in his native dress. . . . The three pieces which I have selected had each a particular title to regard. . . . ‘The Address to the Evening Star ’ claimed attention on account of its inimitable beauty and harmonious versification. The original of this piece suffered even in the hands of Mr Macpherson, though he has shown himself inferior to no translator. The copy or edition which he had of this poem is very different from mine; I imagine it will, in that respect, be agreeable to Mr Percy. The gentleman who gave it me copied it from an old MS., which Mr Macpherson had no access to before his ‘Fingal’ came abroad.”

2. Lachlan Macpherson of Strathmashie, October 22, 1763 :—

“In the year 1760 I had the pleasure of accompanying my friend Mr Macpherson during some part of his journey in search of the poems of Ossian through the Highlands. I assisted him in collecting them, and took down from oral tradition, and transcribed from old manuscripts, by far the greatest part of those pieces he has published. Since the publication, I have carefully compared the translation with the copies of the originals in my hands, and find it amazingly literal, even in such a degree as to preserve in some measure the cadence of the Gaelic versification.”

3. Rev. John Macpherson, D.D., of Sleat, November 27, 1763 :—

“I have in obedience to your request made inquiry for all the persons around me who were able to rehearse from memory any parts of the poems by Mr Macpherson, and have made them to rehearse in my hearing the several fragments or detached pieces of those poems which they were able to repeat. This done, I compared with great care the pieces rehearsed by them with Mr Macpherson’s translation. These pieces or fragments are: the description of Cuchullin’s chariot (Fingal, book i. p. 11). The rehearsers are John Macdonald of Breakish in Strath, Isle of Skye, gentleman; Martin Macllivray, tenant in Slate; and Allan Macaskle, farmer in Glenelg.”

4. Lieutenant Duncan MacNicol, late of 88th Regiment, Sockrock, in Glenurchy, January 1764:—

“I have been at some pains in examining several in this country about Ossian’s poems, and have found out as follows : Fingal, B. iii. p. 45—‘ Oscar, I was young like thee when lovely Faineasollis,’ &c., to the end of the third book; Fingal, B. iv. p. 50—‘Eight were the heroes of Ossian,’ &c., mostly word for word to p. 58, or the end of the fourth book; and an array of further passages, among which is one beginning, ‘Then Gaul and Ossian sat on the green banks of Lubar’—a passage Laing asserted to be an imitation by Macpherson of the 137th Psalm.”

5. Rev. Donald Macleod, Glenelg, to Dr Blair, March 26, 1764:—

“It was in my house that Mr Macpherson got the description of Cuchullin’s horses and car in book i. p. 2 from Allan MacCaskie, schoolmaster, and Rory Macleod, both of this glen. He has not taken in the whole of the description; and his translation of it (spirited and pretty as it appears, so far as it goes) falls so far short of the original in the picture it exhibits of Cuchullin’s horses and car, that in none of his translations is the inequality of Macpherson’s genius to that of Ossian so very conspicuous.”

In a letter to Dr Blair, dated October 2, 1764, Lord Auchinleck remarks:—

(In Ossian) “When a hero finds death approaching he calls to prepare his deer’s horn—a passage which I did not understand for a good time after ‘Fingal’ was published, but then came to get it fully explained accidentally. You must know that in Badenoch, near the church of Alvie, on the highway-side, are a number of tumuli. Nobody had ever taken notice of these as artificial till Macpherson Benchar [Banchor], a very sensible man, under an apprehension of their being artificial, caused to cut up two of them, and found human bones in them, and at right angles with them a red-deer’s horn above them. These burials plainly have been before Christianity, for the corpse lay in the direction of north and south, not in that of east and west. . . . ‘ Fingal ’ was published before any of these tumuli were opened.”

The testimony of the late Rev. Dr Hately Waddell of Glasgow— long so well known as the editor and biographer of Burns, and more recently as the author of ‘ Ossian and the Clyde ’—is still more emphatic in the same direction. In an able lecture delivered by him at Inverness on’ 24th January 1877, vindicating the authenticity of Ossian as represented in Macpherson’s translation, Dr Waddell, after stating that he did not presume either to criticise or explain the Gaelic edition of 1807, goes on to inquire whether anything had been proved against Macpherson to invalidate his own declaration that the poems of Ossian were translated by him from an original, or rather from several originals, in the Scottish Gaelic language, in his hands ? Was he previously known to be a liar? Had he ever been guilty of fraud? Had he ever done anything dishonest? Had he ever imposed upon his friends, upon his patrons, upon the public? Had he done anything of a sort to forfeit his claims to their confidence, or to destroy his claims to respect and honour as a student of divinity, and an aspirant to the functions of the Church? Nothing we know, or ever heard of. His worst crime was poverty, and one of the most honourable actions of his life was to requite in old age, by the offer of payment an hundredfold, the unknown obligations of friendship that had been conferred upon him in his youth. Why, then, should this man be suspected or accused of a long, intricate, and difficult series of unblushing impostures on the world before the age of twenty-four? Because he was ambitious? But he was not more ambitious than Burke or Canning, Brougham or Disraeli—who have never been accused of literary fraud or falsehood. Because other young men—like Chatterton, for example—have made attempts of the kind to impose upon the public? But Chatterton at that date was only a child. He might afterwards, indeed, have emulated Macpherson, but Macpherson could not possibly have emulated him. Besides, the very essence of Chatterton’s imposture was the production of forged documents, whereas the most serious charge against Macpherson was that he did not produce a document at all. Is it because in earlier youth he had attempted poetry of his own? Then the sort of poetry he so attempted affords the most conclusive evidence that he could never have been the author of what subsequently appeared. Is it because he afterwards enjoyed political patronage, and obtained a Government appointment, where he accumulated a fortune ? In this he was no worse than any other political aspirant of his day ; but even if he had been, Ossian was published long before. Is it because he threatened retaliation by violence, when he was denounced as a ruffian and a cheat ? Any man of spirit in the circumstances, much more any Highland man, would have done the same. Is it because he refused to produce his MS. when demanded ? That question comes nearer to the point. But he did produce it, and left it with his publishers for a twelvemonth to be inspected by his accusers, who had neither the courtesy, courage, nor common-sense to look at it. . . . And is James Macpherson to be eternally defamed with fraud and forgery because lexicographers and critics who did not understand the subject, and will not so much as condescend to look at it, persist in so defaming him? It seems incredible as a mere question of honour, of honesty, of common-sense, much more incredible as a question of fact, when the issues which depend upon it are considered.”

Rev. Mr Waddell’s testimony.

Under the same head, Dr Waddell further inquired

“Why then should these extraordinary productions be looked upon as frauds, if there was nothing in the translator’s previous life to suggest it? Because the style was too lofty? the characters too grand? the events too wonderful? the morals too pure? the history too sublime? the achievements too heroic? the incidents too romantic? the sentiments too tender? the pathos too touching? the pictures of life too splendid? the revelations of humanity too profound? For what? for whom? for when? For types of a race that defied and defeated the Romans? For a poet who spoke with authority in the ear of kings? For a period of transition between native civilisation on the brink of ruin, and foreign civilisation itself on the verge of decay ? Between the opposite extremes and representatives of two antagonistic worlds? Too lofty, grand, wonderful, and pure? too sublime, too heroic, too romantic, too tender, too touching, too splendid, too profound?— for an era like this, and for men like these? Yet not too lofty, grand, wonderful, pure, sublime, heroic, romantic, tender, touching, splendid, or profound for a young student of divinity, who must not only have concocted and composed the whole of it in fragments, and interwoven, dovetailed, and jointed it together by mere words and syllables not hitherto detected for a hundred years, and apparently not known to himself; who must have borrowed his style by assiduous labour, according to Laing, from eighty-eight different authors, and manufactured twenty-two epic poems out of 966 words or phrases—certain of these poems containing three, six, and eight books; and who finally located his heroes and localised his scenes on this haphazard process so exactly, that the very footsteps of the one and the outlines of the other may be traced and identified at this hour, scores and hundreds of miles distant from the regions and localities where he fancied them; who did not know the rocks, the rivers, or the mountains, the lakes or seas, the islands or the continents, the regions or the airts, the very points of the compass, to which his own supposed forgeries related! The supposition is impossible, incredible, absurd—impossible alike in fancy or in philosophy, in forgery or in fate. Such a concurrence of falsehood with fact, beyond the knowledge of a liar himself, is inconceivable. No necromancer on earth could have accomplished it, much less a poor student of divinity.”

In one of a series of able and interesting articles, recently published in the ‘ Scotsman,’ Mr Donald MacKinnon, the Professor of the Celtic Languages and Literature in the University of Edinburgh, says :—

“Outside of Gaeldom few people knew or cared much whether Highlanders did or did not possess a literature. As a rule, the Lowland Scot has ever shown little interest in any views or ideas that his Celtic neighbour might hold. The Register of the Privy Council and other public documents record the various shifts resorted to by the central Government from time to time in dealing with refractory clans, the favourite device being to arm a neighbouring chief with legal powers * to murder and to ravish ’ at pleasure, and so perpetuate clan feuds to all time. Regarding the beliefs, the language and the literature of the people, little or nothing was noted. Still, the names of the Gaelic heroes occasionally reached southern ears. Dunbar more than once refers to them, not always in complimentary terms. Only two are mentioned by name, Fionn and Goll. The former is Fingal with Barbour, as afterwards with Macpherson ; elsewhere he is Fyn, Fyn MacCoul (Fionn mac Cumhaill, ‘ Fionn, son of Cumhall ’). The two are usually spoken of as warriors or giants. Gavin Douglas makes the heroes ‘ gods in Ireland as they say’; Dean Munro makes Fynan King in Man; and according to Boece, many tales and poems were told about Fyn MacCoul. But it was only five years before Macpherson wrote that the first serious attempt was made to place the claims and merits of Gaelic literature before English readers. The honour of doing so belongs to Jerome Stone, a native of Scoonie in Fife, and a pure Saxon—a man who, as he says himself, was ‘ equally a stranger in blood to the descendants of Simon Breck and the subjects of Cadwallader.’ Stone went to teach in Dunkeld Academy at the age of twenty-four, fresh from St Andrews. The young schoolmaster had, among many gifts and graces, a great facility for acquiring languages. He studied Gaelic, highly appreciated the literature, and made a collection of Ossianic ballads and modern lyric poetry. Six months before his death, in November 1755, Stone wrote to the editor of the ‘Scots Magazine’ that ‘there are compositions in it [Gaelic] which for sublimity of sentiment, nervousness of expression, and high-spirited metaphor, are hardly to be equalled among the chief productions of the most cultivated nations; ’and subsequently sent as a specimen a translation, or rather paraphrase, of one of the ballads of the Cuchullin epoch, that known in Gaelic literature as ‘Fraoch,’ but entitled by Stone ‘Albin and Mey.’ This promising scholar and litterateur died of fever in the following summer at the early age of thirty. Macpherson was eighteen at the time, serving in secret, as he says himself, his apprenticeship to the Muses, and may well have had his attention directed to the heroic literature of his country by Jerome Stone; but in the din and tumult that followed, the enthusiastic and scholarly schoolmaster of Dunkeld was forgotten. And so the Ossianic literature that lay buried in Gaelic MS., or floated through the brains of Highland peasants, was unknown to print, Gaelic or English. James Macpherson had thus the great advantage of breaking new ground.

“Nowadays we can only imagine the feelings with which the Highland people were regarded by their southern neighbours in 1760. The storm of the ’45 had burst and passed; but still the waves of prejudice ran high. Many Lowlanders embraced the cause of the Stuarts, and about half the clans abstained from doing so. Jacobite sentiment, though not so widespread as in the north, took deep root in many districts in the south of Scotland, and as matter of fact, the best Jacobite songs are not in Gaelic, but in Scotch. But it was the Highland people, loyal and disloyal alike, that had alone to endure for many a day thereafter all the hatred and scorn which Saxon Philistinism could command. And when the political trespasses were forgotten, or atoned for by the valour of Highland soldiers, these feelings were transferred to the domain of art and letters. It was bad enough that a few thousands of unkempt, half-naked savages should set the empire by the ears, and even shake the throne itself; but that the hungry redshank should dare to have a civilisation, a knowledge of letters, poetry of a high order of excellence, dating back many centuries before ever a Norman set foot in the land, and even before the Saxon emerged from barbarism—such presumption was intolerable, and not to be endured for a moment. We live in other and happier days. The burning questions of religion and politics never sharply divided the two peoples in this country; and in blood we are pretty mixed, north and south. And yet it is with more or less of a grudge that a knowledge of art or letters is allowed to the Celt by some among us still. You may produce your few relics recovered from the wreck of the past—your crosses, your tombstones, your brooches, your books and bells; but the art of these, their ornamentation and decoration, even their language, may, according to some writers, be anything you please other than Celtic. Dr Jamieson would compass sea and land in search of an origin for a word of respectable associations rather than allow that it was borrowed from Gaelic into Scottish. A member of a learned profession and of several learned societies, British and Continental, printed the following sentences in 1889 : ‘It is gravely related of the German philologer Zeuss, who, to add to the marvel, never set foot on Irish soil, that he reconstructed the ancient Irish or Celtic tongue from the literary remains of a thousand years ago, which he met with in the continent of Europe. Such feats of human ingenuity are no doubt very wonderful. It would, however, be satisfactory to know that the MSS. found by the learned German were, in point of fact, the survivals of an early Celtic speech, and not merely the residuum of the more archaic dialects of the ancient Gothic. We know that the Goths had a literature. We do not know that the Celts had any literary remains.’ And is it not to theories of education inherited from the Goths, tempered, perhaps, by an academic indifference to the needs of what are considered at best but a mere handful of illiterate peasants, we owe the fact that while a million of public money is expended annually on the elementary education of Scottish children, and thirty thousand on the training of suitable teachers for them, Gaelic-speaking young men and women are practically shut out of the trained branch of the teaching profession, and Gaelic-speaking children are in consequence deprived of the greatest boon that could at the present time be offered to them—the inestimable blessing of an intelligent education.”

To the keen, sensitive nature of the translator—so characteristic of the descendants of the old historical parson of Kingussie—the insolent criticisms to which he was subjected, and the sneers and bristly fury of bearish critics, “gnarled through and through with stiff English prejudice,” like the redoubtable Dr Johnson, must have been galling in the extreme. The distinguished philosopher, Sir David Brewster, who married one of Macpherson’s daughters, had access to and examined all the manuscripts and papers left by the translator at Belleville. In the ‘ Home Life ’ of Sir David by his gifted daughter, Mrs Gordon, published in 1869, there are several interesting allusions to the Ossianic controversy. Speaking of the private belief of her father and the Mac-phersons, Mrs Gordon says :—

“They never had a moment's doubt as to the complete and entire authenticity of the Poems. The originals, they were fully persuaded, had been received by Mr Macpherson in most cases by oral tradition, and in others from MSS. which had been written down two or three centuries before from the old Highland lairds whose predecessors had sung them long before such innovations as pen, ink, and paper were known among the Celts.”

Matthew Arnold, in speaking of the vein of “piercing regret and passion” running through Celtic poetry, characterises Macpherson’s ‘Ossian’ as “a famous book,” which “ carried in the last century this vein like a flood of lava through Europe.”

“Strip Scotland if you like,” says that distinguished critic, “of every feather of borrowed plumes which, on the strength of Macpherson’s ‘ Ossian,’ she may have stolen from that vetus et major Scotia, the true home of the Ossianic poetry, Ireland; I make no objection. But there will still be left in the book a residue with the very soul of the Celtic genius in it, and which has the proud distinction of having brought this soul of the Celtic genius into contact with the genius of the nations of modern Europe, and enriched all our poetry by it: Woody Morven, and echoing Sora, and Selma with its silent halls !—we all owe them a debt of gratitude, and when we are unjust enough to forget it, may the Muse forget us ! Choose any one of the better passages in Macpherson’s ‘ Ossian,’ and you can see even at this time of day what an apparition of newness and power such a strain must have been to the eighteenth century: ‘1 have seen the walls of Balclatha, but they were desolate. The fox looked out from the windows, the rank grass of the wall waved round her head. Raise the song of mourning, O bards, over the land of strangers! They have but fallen before us, for one day we must fall. Why dost thou build the hall, son of the winged days ? Thou lookest from thy towers to-day, yet a few years, and the blast of the desert comes; it howls in thy empty court, and whistles round thy half-worn shield. Let the blast of the desert come; we shall be renowned in our day.’

“All Europe felt the power of that melancholy; but what I wish to point out is, that no nation of Europe so caught in its poetry the passionate penetrating accent of the Gaelic genius, its strain of Titanism, as the English. Goethe, like Napoleon, felt the spell of Ossian very powerfully, and he quotes a long passage in his ‘Werther.’”

“More,” says Mr Eyre-Todd, in the introduction already referred to, “than two thousand years ago in Athens, Peisistratus gathered and pieced together the fragments of the ‘Iliad’ and the ‘Odyssey.’ Does it seem impossible that the same office should fall to be done in the eighteenth century for a Homer of the north? History, doubtless, has but repeated itself in the storm of adverse criticism which burst upon the restorer of the Celtic bard; and only when the din of wordy battle has died away will be heard the numbers of this last-found lord of song. The merit of the poems themselves, as poetry, may safely be left to take care of itself. Long ago the songs of Ossian earned a place for themselves in the literature of every European language—an Italian version, it is said, being the constant companion 'and inspiration of the First Napoleon. England alone has refused to admit the claims of the Celtic bard, and that at the bidding of Dr Johnson—a good and great man indeed, but one who, knowing nothing of the subject, dogmatically imposed his prejudices upon the literary mind of his country, denying, like certain Pharisees of old, that any good thing could come out of Nazareth. . . .

“As exact material for history, the value of the poems of Ossian, like the value of all early poetry, must remain difficult to decide. It can never be absolutely proved that events happened on the plains of Troy, or among the hills of Morven, exactly as Homer and as Ossian had described them—though it must be confessed that Ossian, as an eyewitness, corroborated in many details by history, tradition, and antiquities, appears entitled to the greater credence. But for another and probably more important kind of truth, the work of both bards may be considered absolutely reliable. The ‘Iliad ’ and the Ossianic poems present a general but genuine picture of the civilisation in the countries and at the time in which they were composed.

“After all, the chief assurance of immortality for these ‘ tales of the times of old ’ must rest upon their own sublimity and beauty. There may long be those who doubt the existence of Ossian; but none will deny that in these pages are to be found passages unsurpassed in majesty and hardly equalled in tenderness. What could there be more full of pathos than Ossian’s frequent address to Malvina, the betrothed of his dead son Oscar, and the companion of his own old age? And what in literature is nobler than the bard’s apostrophe to the splendours of heaven, or his lament at the tombs of heroes?—‘ Weep, thou father of Morar ! weep; but thy son heareth thee not. Deep is the sleep of the dead ; low their pillow of dust. No more shall he hear thy voice, no more awake at thy call. When shall it be morn in the grave to bid the slumberer awake? Farewell, thou bravest of men.’— (Songs of Selma.)

“Ossian is not the only bard whose glory appears a marvel to these latter days. Out of the dim past, booming like the surge of ocean, still rolls many a billow of primeval song. The Vedic hymns float onward yet down a stream of time whose ripples have been centuries. The world still listens awed to the chants of the prophets of ancient Israel. And still from the storied isles of Greece reverberates the long roll of the Tale of Troy divine. Does it seem more strange that the echoes of a heroic age should be lingering yet among the fastnesses of the Caledonian Hills?”

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus